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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The incredibly sad and misunderstood life of George Apley

John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley, a fictional bio of a Boston Brahmin in which the narrator, a contemporary of the eponymous Apley, tells the life story mostly through surviving documents (letters, a diary, other notes and memoranda) with his interpolated commentary, remains one of the most sorrowful accounts of a man's life - largely because of the disjunction between what the obtuse Willing presents and what we can know and understand about Apley's life. Yesterday read the section covering his Harvard years and his European tour between graduation and law school. the narrator, Willing, tells of A's life at Harvard as a wonderful time when A became popular and engaged in numerous activities and made lifelong friends - but we can see, from the material he quotes, that Apley was constantly hounded by his parents to associate only with the right people, that his parents believe the entire purpose of his Harvard years was to get into the right club, the one his father (and fathers before him) had joined, pushing him not to work too hard - all of which reaches a culmination in Apley's falling in love with a girl from a prosperous but working-class Boston Irish family, a relationship that Apley's parents promptly crush. Willing has no understanding of this at all, and about allhe can do is praise Apley for being a "gentleman" and not "taking advantage of" this by all accounts lovely and intelligent young woman. The family sends Apley on a European tour (w/ aunt and uncle) when he's clearly despondent after graduation, and the sum of his observations, it seems, is to compare everything he sees in Europe w/ Boston - which Willing thinks show Apley's intelligence. The culmination is a little passage Apley wrote, looking up a country road in England, and wishing he could walk up that road and just be alone w/ his own thoughts - perhaps the most poignant and insightful things we've read from Apley so far, and Willing completely misses the point, has no comprehension of Apley's suffering and loneliness.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

What's your level of interest in Ferris story in current New Yorker?

Your tolerance for Joshua Ferriss's story in current NYer, The Abandonment, will depend on your levle of interest in millennials behaving like narcissistic and irresponsible brats. Story in brief tells of a 30-something TV star (in some kind of mid-level sitcom it seems) who panics that his wife has abandoned him after she goes out of bagels after a minor spat and doesn't return for several hours. Tearfully, he leaves their (beautiful) Manhattan apartment, desultorily looks for her, then in tears starts heading "south" eventually crossing into Brooklyn and buzzing the intercom of a nice young would-be artist he'd met - 4 days back! - at some kind of fundraiser. She lets him in, they have a meandering conversation, each complaining about his/her life - she wishes she had more time to paint but is consumed with child care, he romanticizing her cluttered apartment as "real life," unlike the sterile, clean life he lives at home. He declares that he loves her, they begin some passionate kissing on the couch - but, ouch, the baby wakes up, her husband - believe it or not - is soon to return, any minute, with kids and dog - so he breaks it off, heads back home, where his wife awaits, snidely asks whom he's fallen for this time, and they resume their married life. Ferris writes really well at times, as evidenced esp by his first novel (less so by his next, which was great at times but didn't hold together well for me), but this story is truly off-putting and not really credible: really? she would fall for him so easily jut because he's on TV? What this material says about Ferris, who knows? Whether he knows people like this or in some way envies the sexual prowess of TV stars (as compared with writers, semi-amateur artists?), who knows. He can do better, and he has done better.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The sly intelligence of Marquand's The Late George Apley

Reading John P. Marquand's seldom-read novel The Late George Apley from circa 1930 - it makes a good bookend w the novel I just finished reading, the likewise forgotten The Rise of Silas Lapham. Both are about the Boston Brahmins, though Lapham is more specifically about the clash between old money and the wealth of the new industrialist class - whereas Apley is about old money entirely. Lapham was written and set in the 1880s; Apley begins with the eponymous Apley's birth in or near that same ear and will apparently follow him through the course of his life. It's a much more sophisticated novel that Lapham, as one would expect, emerging among all the great modern novels of the US and England - so many more narrative tools and ideas were available, at Marquand's fingertips so to speak. The novel is incredibly sly: it's the life story of Apley told by a friend and compatriot, named Willing (hah!), urged on to the task by Apley's adult son after Apley's death. He uses many pieces of Apley's own writing (how he got so many letters that Apley sent is never explained) to tell the tale. At first glance it seems to be encomium to a time and to a caste long vanished, but the beauty and intelligence of this novel is that we gradually realize - more than Willing himself does - that he is skewering the Boston aristocrats by telling their story in their own language and venue. For ex. a lot is made of what a great grammar school (private, on Beacon Hill, or course) Apley attended and of the success of so many of his childhood friends  and it takes a bit of reflection before we realize that, wait a minute, all of these guys got into Harvard even tho some were dolts, how could that be? And the so-called famous among them and great successes were authors of completely ridiculous books probably published by a vanity - none was as smart, successful, or imaginative as he (all men) imagined himself and his cronies to be. Many other similar examples, all subtle - Apley's mother described as a great aesthete and artistic soul, which is fine until Willing quotes a passage of her verse. We can see around the edges of this novel and know far more than the narrator knows (or reveals).

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Howells's place in literatue then and now

Evan Connell's intro to the Library of America edition of William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham niecly delineates the two aspects of WDH's career: among the most popular writers in America at mid-life, in teh 1880s and 90s, say, ranked up there w/ Twain and close friend of Henry James, but in the later years - he lived to about 1920 and continued writing into his 80s it seems - he was completely out of touch and largely forgotten (Connell notes that WDH received an unsolicited invite to take a correspondence course in writing!). In the 19th century, he was looked up to as a realist, interested in ordinary people and their lives, a great fan of Turgenev, often compared w/ Balzac, and looking back you can see that, yes, these were his influences (although Silas Lapham was not exactly about ordinary Bostonians) but you also see that his characters are flat, two-dimensional, easy to see around their edges, never surprising to us nor strikingly human and vulnerable - they are pieces on a board of a plot that he works out, slowly and carefully. As noted in an earlier post, his characters to wrestle w/ moral and ethical dilemmas, which gives the novel its value, but the characters feel like illustrations, examples, types (the ambitious businessman, the old-money blueblood, etc. - the women even less distinct though they often get the best lines!) - not like people. As we moved farther away from the word in which WDH lived, his fiction seems lost in its era, unlike Twain and James, both eminently readable a century later. And in fact that's what happened - literature moved so rapidly away from WDH and his placid style: he seems a thousand years away from the American writers who emerged at the end of his life or just after: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, to name just the major triumvirate: they're plots so much more inventive and ambitious, their characters so much more fully delineated, their language so advanced. At the end, Howells is a little dull and probably always was, even to the well-mannered readers of his day.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why Howells earned a spot in Library of America

I'll give William Dean Howells props for this - he's a serious writer interested in ideas and, in particular, with characters who face moral or ethical dilemmas that they must resolve. The Rise of Silas Lapham, while stylistically a mess, is still in print (though seldom read) because it's not just a "story," a lot of gossip about a lot of rich characters who are quirky or cynical or naive, to varying degrees, in other words, a typical popular novel of its time (and ours, to a degree). It's about characters in crisis: two crises, in fact. First, the personal-romantic story line: daughter Penelope is in love with Tom Corey, whom the whole family believed to be in love w/ P's sister, Irene. What should she do? Should she give up her love to preserve her relationship w/ Irene? This dilemma consumes many chapters and involves all of the member of the Lapham family. Second crisis, the social-economic: Lapham desperately needs $ and has an opportunity to sell some property to a group of English businessmen who are clearly acting as a front for a group of investors back in England - they will pay a ridiculously high price for the property (taking a percentage as their earnings), and then the property will prove to be almost worthless, bilking the investors. Lapham realizes that there are many in the consortium, so the loss will be spread out, and that all of the members are wealthy and can afford to take the loss - and he needs the $. But should he get the $ through trickery and deceipt? The laws of capitalism would say: of course. But what should be his course? It's issues like these, which Howells grapples with, via his characters, that raise this novel up a notch and earned it a spot in the Library of America.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

If ever a writer needed a Maxwell Perkins it was Howells

Inevitably, the Rise of Silas Lapham becomes the fall of Silas Lapham, as any half-awake reader has known for 200 pages - he makes some risky investments, goes in against his better judgement with his one-time antagonist - at the urging of his wife, to make good the time when he cut his former partner out of the business - and loses a lot of money in the process, is left with a few mills alongside a rr, knows he can probably sell them at a profit but only if he hides what he's discovered about the rr plans to eliminate the line (or something like that), which he refuses to do - and the world of finance is cruel (in those days no one was too big to fail, it seems) and he has to cut back and even stop construction on the mansion he's building on Beacon St., the symbol of his success. So what will this mean - in particular, for the potential link by marriage to the old $ Corey family? The novel teeters between a Balzac-Zola like expose of class and finance in the Industrial Age and a Lifetime romance - wold money guy falls for the ugly duckling sister (rather than the beauty) in the new $ family - can cash make up for lack of cash? I'm predicting at this point that the Lapham fortune gets restored - possibly through the marital alliance? or a sudden rise in the price of mills? - and that Tom Corey's friend from out west suddenly shows up in Boston and falls for the beautiful sister, Irene, and all is well. Or am I selling William Dean Howells short? I know he can be a serious writer - didn't he co-author a novel w/ Twain that was clumsy as literature but a dark and sensational view of American politics? - so maybe he'll surprise me. Much that's good here - and it's not every 19th-century novel(ist) that can keep my attention right through to the end - but if ever a writer needed a Maxwell Perkins it was Howells - at half thelength this would have been twice the book.

Monday, July 25, 2016

One reason why William Dean Howells is largely forgotten

Strangely, William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham becomes, following the dinner party at which Lapham disgraces himself by turning into a voluble drunk, more of a Lifetime movie than an expose of social class, American capitalism, and the clash of old v new money. After the dinner party, Tom Corey finally and at last tells Lapham's older daughter, Penelope, that he loves her; she's overwhelmed, obviously loves him too, but knows that her sister and her entire family had thought he was interested in younger sister, the beautiful Irene. She orders him out, says she never wants to see him again - but we know the love each other, and so? Next morning after a sleepless night she tells her mother all, and then the Lapham seniors face the difficult decision of what to tell Irene. After much trepidation, dialog, and even some counseling with a minister whom they slightly know, they decide it's best to break one heart rather than three - and mother tells Irene. All this would be much, much more interesting if, a, we hadn't known so much more than any of the rather unperceptive characters all along, and, b, if WDH could write with an degree of economy. He repeats himself - repeatedly! As if he was being paid by the word (maybe he was). I love long, complex, highly developed dialog, esp if it advances the plot (though not necessarily) but his dialog just covers the same ground over and over - the main reason, I think, that he is largely forgotten and his peers - Twain, James - are still read widely, at least among English majors.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lapham's social gaffe and its potential consequences

At the dinner party that the Coreys throw to introduce the Laphams to Boston society, Silas Lapham at first handles himself well and makes a good impression but over the course of the evening he drinks far too much - he's not used to fine wines at dinner and port afterwards among the gentlemen - and he becomes a voluble drunk. He doesn't seem to have committed any serious social gaffes but he talks on and on and eventually stumbles his way out of the party, and the next morning is shamed and hung over and has no memory of what he said or might have said. To make his humiliation worse, he calls aside the Corey son, Tom, who is his protege in the paint factory, and asks him if he'd said anything truly mortifying. Tom plays it down says it was nothing nobody really noticed his ill behavior etc., but of course we know he's just being kind, that the Coreys and their ilk must have thought Lapham, the self-made millionaire, show himself to be a boor and ill bred. Boston society in the era -the late 19th century, is so peculiar : the Coreys seemed open to inviting new money into their set, but there's also the sense that the arriviste can never truly arrive - though maybe his children can do so. Howells is a great observer of social class, but he doesn't really have the rapier that he needs to rip it apart - the novel is engaging as a narrative, though lacking in drama and tension. Lapham is humiliated, but the stakes are so low. We assume that the novel will be about his fall from grace but it's not clear - 2/3 of the way through - that he's going to fall at all. In fact he doesn't seem to need social position - his wealth is enough (for him), though maybe not for his wife and daughters? The lingering question is whether his social gaffes are so severe that they will end the possibility of his daughters marrying "up."

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The dinner party in fiction and why Howells is no Proust

A good illustration of the good and the bad in William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham involves the preparation for and staging of the dinner party, in which the old-money Corey family invites the nouveau riches Laphams to dinner: much discussion about all the proprieties on the part of the Coreys and much anxiety about what to wear on the part of the Laphams - all building up to the big event and the crisis: older sister, Penelope, refuses to attend and it's obvious to all readers by now, even tho the family members don't see this, that the Corey son, Tom, is in love w/ P not w. her younger and more beautiful sister, Irene. In any event, Howells is good at noting all the class distinctions and the whole scene is unusual in that the Coreys seem truly to want to invite the Laphams into their social set, recognizing that their families may be united by marriage soon The mood and milieu is far different from the Wharton-James style and even more so from the rigid class structure of the British and French novelists - Howells seems truly to be trying to delineate not a classless society but a class structure that is more open and fluid, more American, in which one can ascend - based of course on how much $ one has earned (need not have been inherited). There's the sense that the Laphams, though socially ill instructed and ill at east (Silas, anyway) are as good as anyone else especially the daughters. And yet for all that - I keep wishing and hoping for more sharpness, for some kind or eruption or outbreak that threatens the stability of this social set and of this novel, Howells is good on detail but he gorges on it - his account of the set up and then of the party moves so slowly, so tediously. Many balk at the long party scenes in Proust, and they are indeed much longer and perhaps less consequential than the Corey dinner party, but Proust keeps moving the conversation along - with new nuances and insights at every moment, whereas Howells hits the same note repeatedly. We get it!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Quirkiness gone awry in a joy Williams story

Joy Williams takes quirkiness to a new extreme in her story in current New Yorker, "Stuff." It's about a 60+ man who in the first scene receives a diagnosis of fatal lung cancer - a scene that Williams develops as a ghastly dark comic vignette: the doc isn't his familiar physician but a sub,at first they mistake him for a much older patient but after a moment of his thinking oh they gave me the wrong Guy's diagnosis the doc checks and says nope sorry that's your prognosis too. From there the story descends deeper into bathos - a conflict w a woman who is his rival columnist at the local weekly, a visit to his 90+ mother in the nursing home - and each of these scenes and a few others are so deliberately off key - the mother completely unsympathetic to the son,metals to him about how he had difficulty making friends in youth. We actually know v little about him - married? Children? Occupation? - and who really cares Bcz he's not a real "person" in any event. The characters don't talk to one another or even to us. They are props set up to offer the wry quips of the writer. Mourn tolerance for this kind of thing depends on how much you expect fiction to reflect reality as opposed to creating a new reality. This is a story about the writer's writing and tho it's darkly amusing at times nothing in it will seem likely or familiar, which may be its very point - or its downfall.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

William dean Howells is by no means a great writer but some of the scenes in his novel the rise of Silas Latham are amusing - in particular I like the scenes of the Corey family at home. They're the old money family trying to come to terms w the fact that their son tom has apparently fallen in love w one of the daughters of the nouveau rich paint manufacturer Latham - the mistakenly think he's fallen for the beautiful younger daughter while it's obvious to all readers that he 's in love w the wry, witty older daughter, Penelope. (It's a reprise of the Bennet daughters for pride and prejudice w ages reversed) to watch them struggle w this issue and w the very idea that Theo son is working for a living is pretty good entertainment - especially the dry remarks of the father bro field who's never worked a day in his life. Howells sees himself as the chronicler of the modern man no doubt but he's much sharper and more acerbic in depicting the old money. The plot kind of chugs along but half way thru the novel we've seen neither lapham's rise nor fall. It's evident that he's in too deep with the house he's building on beacon street and he makes some kind of shady investment that will probably do him in but altogether Howells spends an amazing amount of time establishing characters before he allows them to do anything. If his social scope were broader he might be the american Balzac but as it is these seem like quaint figures from long ago - the men at least.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why William Dean Howells is worth reading, and why he's largely forgotten

Reading William Dean Howells (for the first time), The Rise of Silas Lapham, ca 1880, in the classy Library of America edition (good, except for the ridiculous footnotes, some things explained for no reason hundreds of other topical references ignored) and, unfortunately, it's easy to see why he's a largely forgotten novelist today, though extremely popular, often linked with his friend Twain, at the time. First, Howells must have had as his motto: Why say things once when you can say them 2, 3, or 4 times? He's anything but subtle; he makes his points about his characters repeatedly. I get the feeling I could doze off while reading and then wake up and keep going and wouldn't miss a thing. His characters are very much what Forster would call two-dimensional: Lapham is a self-made businessman, somewhat crude and unpolished, socially awkward, boastful; his wife is socially more adept and sharp of tongue; older daughter is plain but a wit and a shrewd intellect; younger daughter (Irene) is pretty and sweet and an innocent, and therefore doomed. All fine as far as they go, but we see that they are not, in Forster's terminology, "round" characters because we continually see more about them than they do - we can peer around their edges. For example, long, long before any of the characters know this we can see that the rich, old-money underling, who first falls for Irene and her beauty, will eventually wind up with the much sharper older sister, Penelope. Why can't they see this? But that's Howells's way. On the positive side, Rise of SL is a good social document - reading it we can see very well the key issues of the time - in this case, old $ v new $, the continued rise of the business class, the American spirit of enterprise and hard work v old wealth and class, all good themes, and the novel, if you're willing to skim it, as I am doing (you can get the entire narrative by reading only the quoted dialogue, I think) is reasonably entertaining, a time-passer w/ some historical value. Howells's themes are handled with infinitely more subtlety by some of his near-contemporaries, notably James, but it's worth reading him at least once.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What we talk about when we talk about grad school - Park III

Part 3 and final installment of what we talk about when we talk about grad school, what I read when I entered SUNY Buffalo in the 1970s as a grad student - and what I read now. My whole reading life, which is to say much of my life, has been devoted to serious literature, and from freshman year in college I was sure I wanted to major in English, go to English grad school, and become an English professor. Although I was an indifferent student for many years in the early grades, I read a lot in h.s., including an ambitious summer reading list in 20th-cent lit via a course one summer, and I'd had a lot of exposure to Shakespeare, thanks to my mom's interest, so felt I had some standing when I entered college - and my earnest wish was to know as much abt lit as my grad-student instructor did by the time I reached his age (Frank Occhiogrosso, shout-out). I pretty much followed thru on all that - entered SUNY Buffalo with clear intention of a dissertation on S., but also knowing I chose that program bcz it was the only one at the time that combined study of lit w/ serious literary writing (I think all Ph.D. English students should try their hand at writing, if only to know how hard it is). My grad-school work was almost entirely about drama and poetry, aside from items that cropped up on my orals list. I think I was a little contemptuous of fiction -- too much about plot and character and not as purely about language, and not as direct an expression of ideas and emotions, too "mediated." I was esp. interested in drama because there was so much the reader (critic) could add, or bring to it: the text was only the half of it. I don't think I read a single work of fiction in any class I enrolled in during grad school. So, yes, I did write the diss on S and did teach English, for 5 years, before abandoning teaching (as it abandoned me) for other pursuits. Only when I became books ed of the Prov Journal did I return seriously (and almost exclusively) to reading fiction, and that as readers of this blog know is what I still do today - in part making up for the missed reading of my youth, in part re-reading great works, in part keeping up w/ contemporary trends and ideas, and finding that there is plenty to write about and grappled w/ in novels and short stories - through I still think that, if I were teaching, I'd go for the purity of poetry and the open form of literary drama.

Monday, July 18, 2016

In search of lost reading: From grad school to re-reading great fiction

Friend BSB entered the SUNY Buffalo English Dept graduate program a year after I did; she'd graduated from a top university a few years before. In college, as she tells it, she was too intimidated by most of the giants in the English Dept., took only a few courses, majored in psychology, and worked in that field for a while after graduating. But she always had a love for literature, especially novels - and had heard that SUNY Buffalo had an intriguing program in literature and psychology, so applied and got in. Initially, she thought she write about Doris Lessing, but backed off because Lessing was extraordinarily popular at that time and it seemed that just about every other grad student was writing about The Golden Notebook, so she turned her focus onto Woolf and Forster, ultimately doing her dissertation on the latter. She seems to be one of the rarities whose focus didn't change all that much over the course of her graduate years (same holds true for me, to some extent): didn't write much about poetry at all (though she notes that she took great solace from reading Yeats in her college years when the world seemed to be falling apart) and really stayed focused on major modern British novelists. BSB, like all who entered SUNY English in those days, had hoped to get a teaching job in a college or u.; she did get a job in a small college in Puerto Rico, which she held for a few years, but life brought her back to NYC, where she enjoyed a long teaching career first in public high schools and later in an advanced public-private hybrid high school in nyc where students earned college credits in jr and sr years - no doubt she taught more college level courses than most of our peers who did manage to land college or univ tenure-track jobs. Today, she finds most of her reading isn't among the great modernists but is all about keeping up with world events - she's a devotee of the NYT. But her plan in retirement years is to re-read the great novels - something I heartily endorse! She had the experience once of re-reading Middlemarch and finding it to be a completely different novel (of course it was the same novel - it was she who had changed), and we agree that there are so many great novels we've read that we can barely recall or recount - they are part of who were are, just as all lived experiences are, but to return to great reading of the past is to experience that pleasure once again, and from a different and maybe even wiser standpoint.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Changing reading habits and interests over time: Friend ML, former grad school colleague

Visiting this weekend w/ friends, two of whom were with me in the Buffalo English Dept in the 1970s, which has led us to reflect on our reading habits, interest, predilections, and desires then, and now. Although each of us had, to varying degrees, some career in academic life, none of us spent a lifetime teaching English at the college level, which was pretty much what the SUNY English program, like all others at the time, was supposedly preparing us to do. But the jobs were scarce, and our lives and interests changed and evolved over time. A few notes today and maybe over next 2 days as well about each of us. First, friend ML, who actually left the program w/ a master's and transitioned into a social work/counseling program, and for most of her career has been in high level student-affairs administration (advising, honors program) at a major state university. ML had an unusual pathway to the grad program - time off from school pursuing serious horseback riding, a 2-year "finishing college," before discovering a love for literature in her final 2 years undergrad at Drew. Mostly she was moved by some professors who read poetry - contemporary poetry - aloud. She entered the program w/ no clear academic goals, but knew she loved Faulkner (she didn't study his work, though) and several seemingly diverse poets: Whitman, Roethke, Levertov, GM Hopkins. Put those 5 together and you can see she was obviously drawn to writers with highly emotive, abundant, sometimes over-flowing language. As ML left the teaching profession for counseling and advising (later earning and Ed.D), she less and less returned to the authors she wrote about and studied in grad school (does anyone read poetry today - or is it only for study and performance?). Today, she most ready high-level series detective stories, particularly the Brits - GK Chesterson in particular - subjects that were not part of the canon even at Bufffalo, back then, but today are probably more and more recognized as cultural touchstones.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Novels (Austen) and plays (Shakespeare) that update well and (maybe) why

A note about why Austen novels "translate" so well into contemporary stories - not that I'm going to read Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible, but has made me think, and remember the great film update of Emma, Clueless, that there seems to be something about comedies of manners, a la Austen, that carries over into a complete shift in time and setting. Is it that there are so many elements in a comedy of manners that are "universally acknowledged" - even w/ the change in setting, time, locale, they get at the essence of human behavior and personality, and though there are such vast political and social changes between 18th century England and 21st-centuary America, the heart of the matter doesn't alter that much after all. Austen's novels are great social documents of their time - almost too obvious; I remember meeting with a fellow grad student a thousand years ago who was English and scorned the very idea of his writing about politics in Austen because it was too easy, too obvious (he was, therefore, visiting the US and writing about Melville, which he considered strange, exotic, and challenging; I, conversely, was writing about politics in Shakespeare for similar reasons - wish I could remember his name) - but there's an element of Austen and of her genre that is willfully and deliberately free from the politics of her time. Obviously Shakespeare "updates" well, too! (and he was the great updater of his time), in particular to musicals: Kiss Me Kate, West Side Story, as well as film: The Rest Is Silence, He's the Man, Forbidden Planet (I actually haven't seen that), to name a few.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Yes, I accept that Elizabeth and Darcy are made for each other: 2 characters who change over the course of the novel

Forgive me but I will modify some comments from yesterday's post and, yes, I believe that Darcy and Elizabeth can be in love and happy together in a successful marriage, that her love for him is not based (solely) on her discovery that, yes, this guy has a lot of money (only Elizabeth Bennet, the most intelligent and socially perceptive character in literature, would be able to joke w/ Darcy that she fell in love with him because of his wealth). The whole point of the novel is that people can change, grow, evolve, and learn from their experiences, and in an expansive spirit let's accept that both Darcy and Elizabeth have learned and that they have grown to love each other and to discover in themselves the love for the other. Darcy even makes a very touching case for the crudeness and scorn with which he at first treated Eliz., refusing to dance with her and remarking that there's no one in the room w/ whom he'd like to dance: What chance did I have, growing up in the family I was raised in? Yes, he's right, and it goes for the both of them: he easy it would be for him to continue to live life as a social snob, and for her to lead life as a nincompoop, like her kid sisters. It's to their credit that they each have grown, over the course of the novel, away from the childish insecurities and cruelties - especially Darcy. Isn't change, evolution, growth of character something we look for in fiction, a defining chracteristic of the development of the arc of a story? A final note is that Elizbath's take-down of the reprehensible Lady Catherine de Bourg, who shows up uninvited and in her imperious manner commands Eliz to give up any thought of marrying Darc, is one of the great chapters in this novel, in literature in fact - she's so smart and knows exactly how to stand up for herself and how to stick the knife in that horrible lady.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The darkness at the heart of Pride and Prejudice

Ok, so let's accept that Pride and Prejudice is a romance and that Elizabeth and Darcy are meant for each other and all will be well in the end - but - allow me to be a curmudgeon for a moment and ask: Isn't it a little unseemly that Darcy, so stuffy, so self-absorbed, such a social snob, at the outset, falls at last in love with Elizabeth and then more or less buys his way into her heart. She's blown away by all the wealth she sees when she visits his Derbyshire state, and thinks inevitably, hm, maybe I was wrong to turn him down, maybe he's not such a bad guy. And then we learn a few chapters later that it was Darcy - not the Uncle, Mr. Gardiner - who paid off all of Wickham's debts, enabling W and youngest sister, Lydia, to marry without (or without much) shame. Reminds me a little of that rom-com movie As Good as it Gets in which Jack Nicholson plays a totally nasty and misogynist writer who wins the heart of Helen Hunt's character by essentially paying all of her bills. In both cases, the woman would not have fallen for the guy had he been poor, or even only modestly wealthy. Yes, there are interesting social implications to all of this, especially in the 18th century, when the woman was entirely dependent on her mate for any degree of prestige, success, even survival - a system of patrimony (the Bennet state is "entailed" to Mr. Collins because the Bennet's gave birth to only daughters) that forces even a brilliant young woman like Elizabeth to be dependent on a man, to focus her entire being on mating and marriage (Lydia isn't so wrong to be obsessed with marrying - she's wrong in her choice). Also worth noting is that there's a lot of darkness in this comic romance: the Bennet marriage is loveless and fraught with incompatibility, Lydia is a wreck, Charlotte seems doomed to a life of boredom and misery in her marriage to Collins, and where will Elizabeth and Jane be in 20 years, anyway? Does Darcy really seem like the faithful, loyal type? Is his friend Bingley anything more than a shallow pond? These are unanswerable questions, but the darkness, the horror, that lies at the heart of P&P is easy to miss if you're caught up too much by the clever plot, the dazzling dialogue, the tenuous festivities.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Lydia, oh Lydia: The crisis in Pride and Prejudice

After the turning point in Pride and Prejudice - Elizabeth realizes she's in love w/ Darcy, after she also realizes how incredibly rich he is, and she finds it in her heart to overlook his many personality flaws - comes the crisis, as the Bennet family learns that youngest daughter, Lydia, has "eloped" with the Wickham - bad enough that she ran away with this officer, but it appears that he has no intention of marrying her, they haven't heard a word from the absconded couple, and they continue to learn more about Wickham's despicable behavior and irresponsibility. Mr. Bennet heads off to London to try to find his daughter, followed by his brother-in-law Gardiner, and the entire family is in crisis. As is typical, only Eliz and, to a small degree, Mr. Bennet (who regrets letting Lydia go off poorly chaperoned to Bristol and admits to Elizabeth that she had been right in her arguments against the journey), make any sense of the situation (Jane is too unwilling, even in these circumstances, to think ill of anyone). The high point, or maybe the low point, in the crisis is the letter the family receives from the priggish cousin, Mr. Collins, who laments, in his sneering manner, that alas now no gentleman could ever possibly marry any of the other Bennet daughters and he offers the very bright thought that perhaps all would be better off if Lydia were dead. The various Bennets all react in their characteristic manner: the letter Lydia sent to sister Kitty is juvenile and naive to the utmost, Kitty still can't forgive the family for not letting her go off in pursuit of the military officers, Mrs. Bennet worries about buying clothes for Lydia's trousseau, and Mary is pompous and self-righteous. Mr. Bennet retains his dark sense of humor, and his quips elude all but Elizabeth - and us. (There's a really sad passage in which Austen describes the sorrow and failure of the Bennet marriage - this novel may be a comic romance in structure, but there are many darker elements in his mood and timbre.) Austen seems to have set the stage for a test of character, and the main one to be tested will be Darcy: will this family scandal dissuade him from marrying Elizabeth, or will he rise to the occasion and maybe help resolve the crisis?

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The flaw in Pride and Prejudice: The visit to Darcy's estate

The turning point in Pride and Prejudice is the letter that Elizabeth received from Darcy explaining his relationship w/ Wickham and his initial reluctance to dance with E. The Wickham part, we get: there are two sides to every story, and Austen dropped plenty of hints that W was a disreputable and untrustworthy character, even if E., seemingly so smart and perceptive, couldn't see it. The part about Darcy's initial antipathy toward E is a little harder to take, maybe a lot harder. How could he be expected to fall for her, seeing how stupidly her youngest sisters behave, what a simpleton her mother is, what a failure her father. E feels ashamed when she reads this. Should she? A more likely reaction, I think, would be screw him, who is he to judge my family, much less to judge me in their light? E puts Darcy out of her mind but not out of her heart - it's obvious she's been attracted to him right from the beginning. Then begins the strangest section of P&P, and to my mind the most flawed and troublesome: E's visit, along w/ various cousins, to Darby's country estate. It seems very odd to a contemporary reader that these travelers would just stop at this beautiful estate and ask for a tour of the house - like visiting the Newport mansions today. Anyway, that may be what people - at least of a certain caste - did back then - so E gets a "tour" of D's country house, and she's completely on edge for fear that he'll show up unexpectedly.  And he does! But before that, the servants rave about what a wonderful and generous man he is, and E is completely overcome by the beauty of the grounds and of the house. So when D turns up - and is very polite to her and to everyone else in her party - she is ready to fall for him: her prejudice, and his pride, had led them to misjudge each other. But isn't there another element at work here? Surely it's the extraordinary wealth (and taste, or a certain type) that overwhelms E. Obviously, her own chance for a comfortable life is to "marry up," but isn't she too smart to deceive herself, even when smitten? She wouldn't have fallen for him had his country estate proven to be a dingy little ramble. No - but she can easily picture herself as his wife, whether he was, is, a nasty sort or not. Whether she knows it or not, whether we know it or not, she's been won over by his wealth - and is therefore willing to right off his snobbishness, his cruelty to her, his generally unkind behavior - until she's what he wants.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Life After Life - pro and con

At book group last night I was no doubt the hardest on Kate Atkinson, pretty frustrated with her decision to have the protagonist (and some other characters, too) "die" multiple times in her novel, Life After Life; I argued that this technique pushed readers away from the narrative, made us constantly aware that we were reading a "text" and keeping us from committing to, getting emotionally or intellectually involved with the plot and the characters because anything can happen, the author is just toying w/ us. This technique is especially troublesome because Atkinson is so obviously a fine writer - many of her scenes are excellent, and there was universal agreement that the wartime London scenes were fantastic. Authors make decisions about their characters all the time, and I believe Atkinson shirked her responsibility toward her readers. Others disagreed - why can't a novelist do whatever she wants w/ her text, and doesn't the multiple lives of the same character enable us to see new things and to see the familiar in new ways? (No, not for me.) I also asked why the British still seem so drawn to stories about WWII 70+ years after the fact. JRi raised the possibility that it took some time for novels about WWII to emerge, that perhaps it even took a full generation. Not sure I buy that - definitely not re American war novels - but I couldn't readily think of many examples of British war novels from the 50s and 60s (aside from Anthony Powell, and maybe Robert Graves?), though that's not a period in which I'm widely read. (People say the same of Holocaust novels - that none appeared until a decade or so after the war, but I think that had to do more w/ the extermination of so many witnesses and the young age of so many survivors, such as Wiesel and maybe Levi, who were in no way ready to write about his experiences when they were in their teens or 20s. Who is?)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

An alternative way to "publish" Kate Atkinson's Life After Life

Other matters of note as a re-read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life: I'd forgotten the significance of the German narratives. The novel begins with a dramatic and ambiguous encounter in which the protagonist, Ursula, sits down with Hitler at some sort of restaurant or beer hall, pulls out a gun (an old WWI piece from her father), then a comic-book blam! - and we never see whether she killed Hitler or was killed in the attempt. (I'm sure there have been several alternative-history novels exploring these narrative possibilities: What if H had been shot? What if Germany had won the war?, etc. - Atkinson's interest in alternative narratives is character-based; she's not interested in alternative history). Later in the novel, a sequence opens in which Ursula goes to Germany as an exchange student, falls in love w/ a German man, through his connections becomes friendly with Eva Braun and gets to see the central operations of the Reich, and, at least in one narrative, she endures the war and the post-war in dire poverty in Berlin (if the point is to make us see that both sides suffered in the war, that wartime Berlin was just as miserable as wartime London, I don't buy it - screw the Nazis and the Germans who supported them through silence and acquiescence). Atkinson is curiously apolitical in her approach and doesn't have any deep insights into the mentality of Hitler or his cronies. The strongest narratives in the novel are the London wartime sections, far and away. As noted in one of my previous posts on Life After Life, this novel pushes the edges of published fiction and probably should be "published" as an interactive website or app, a network in which "readers" can choose among alternative pathways at various points in the narrative and experience the unfolding of differing possibilities - maybe even w/ the goal of finding that pathway that gives Ursula the longest life?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Recollecting what I can from Life After Life

Anticipating book group tomorrow night - what do I remember about Life After Life (Kate Atkinson), which I read just a few months back? Main thing is the shtick: the lead character dies many times during the course of the narration, including dying at childbirth, so the novel as a whole in a series of lives that might have (or might not have) taken place. There are a few pivotal moments in the narrative - one in particular when the main character (why can't I remember her name?) gets raped by a loutish (American) friend of her dislikable older brother. So in one life version she becomes pregnant, depressed, suicidal, runs off to London, her liberal and independent aunt helps her get an abortion (in one v. she dies after this procedure, I think), and she goes on to lead a lonely life. In other versions she fends for herself, fights off the crude rapist, leads an active and independent life. All of the versions lead to London under aerial attack during WWII - the single most significant era for nearly all British writers over the past 80 years! - and Atkinson does a great job establishing the mood, the esprit de corps, and the danger of living through that era. Various versions of the "life" have the character survive or not - and crossing paths in various complex ways with the same set of characters, for the most part others dwelling in the same apartment building - sometimes they survive in a basement shelter, sometimes not. All told it's a novel of many narratives, some of they beautifully written, but as a coherent work of art I found it a mess, very distracting, consciously pushing us away from the narrator - how can we invest in her story if we know the author will tear it apart again and again? It's in a way like a Cubist painting, I guess, but would anyone hire Picasso to paint their portrait? As I know I noted in several posts, she did a much better job in her sequel novel, A God in Ruins, which was a clear and engaging narrative about one man's life (the younger brother, same family) with only a single narrative "trick" that, though I found it unnecessary, didn't disrupt us from the entire experience of reading the novel.


Friday, July 8, 2016

The character of Collins in Pride and Prejudice

Obviously people have written books about the various characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and I'm definitely not going to do that, but a few words here about one (or maybe 2) of the characters, thinking today of the odious and obsequious Mr. Collins, who is so overbearing in his pomposity that it's all Elizabeth can do to treat him with courtesy and civility and others - Mr. Bennet, I think, was one - won't even offer him that much. His world is entirely self-centered - he literally cannot imagine the idea that Eliz would turn down his marriage proposal, and in a wryly comic scene he attributes her repeated refusals to a "typically feminine" mode of flirtation - except when he turns his countenance to his loathsome benefactress, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (sp?). He fawns all over and and dotes on every particle and particular in her being and her dwelling - and he says, and perhaps believes, that she is so generous in taking such an interest in him (and in the Bennet family), she deigns to "condescend" to them - a word that over the past 2 centuries has developed more of a negative connotation, maybe in fact because of P&P, and he cannot recognize what every other character in the novel and reader of the novel knows: he's a fool, and she's an imperious snob. Yes, we laugh at Collins and his pretensions, but think of how different he is from a Dickens villain (or fool): Austen never truly satirizes her characters, and though she exaggerates his traits for comic effect, it's never the way Dickens does because the comic characterization is always mitigated by Elizabeth's sensibility. Her character is darker and more nearly tragic than a Dickens fool, in that Austen often, with a degree of subtlety, has Eliz reflect upon the misery of life with Collins as a mate: her poor friend Charlotte Lucas has married Collins, and perhaps that's the best she can do - the repeated theme is that women have no chance for a life independent of a husband, and the pickings in this tightly knit society are slim - and Eliz cannot help but thinking how horrible it would be to have to listen to Collins all day, to bend to all of his whims, to actually pretend to love him. (For ex., he chooses the front room as his sitting room, confining Charlotte to the back of the house, and his main purpose is to watch and report at regular intervals on the comings and goings of Lady Catherine. What a life!) We laugh at Collins, but not without sorrow, not without pity for those who can't leave him. For that, we have to wait another 100 years.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The most intelligent character in world literature? Maybe Elizabeth Bennet

(Re)reading Pride and Prejudice, amazing and distressing how much I (and others?) forget about books we're read probably 2 or 3 times already, but of course that means I always have a lifetime or re-reading ahead of me, and even books we've forgotten have not, in a sense, forgotten us: They have helped form our consciousness and our knowledge of the world, in the same way that lived experience (so much of that forgotten as well, thankfully) has formed us. My main impression on return to P&P is that Elizabeth Bennet is probably the most intelligent character in world literature - intelligent with a social IQ of 300+ - which is to say that Austen is the most intelligent writer of all, and not in a show off, Joycean way (or like so many other smart-guy contemporary novelists who strew their fiction with Aristotelian terminology and show off through their characters their knowledge of literary and aesthetic esoterica - that's someone trying to prove he (or she) is smart, a different matter entirely and, socially, a form of doltishness. She is smart through her characters, not the other way around. Part of the pleasure in reading P&P is wondering just what Elizabeth will say: when older sister, Jane, who can only see the good in things and cannot bear even to contemplate that there may be evil people in the world, tries to make excuses to explain her beloved Bingley's bad behavior and indifference, it's a pleasure to read Elizabeth refuting her on every point. And one of the highlights of course is E's refusal of the insufferable Collins's marriage proposal, so polite, and such a put-down! Of course all the minor characters are beautifully sketched, especially the taciturn and much put-upon Mr. Bingley. Is there a problem w/ P&P? Yes, of course, it's sorrowful today to look upon a society with such talented and intelligent women with so few opportunities in their life other than "marrying well," at the cultural isolation of the well-to-do home county people of the 18th century - honestly, do any of them ever do a day's work? - and of course the implicit assumption, even with the almost too smart for her own good Elizabeth, that money makes the world go round: my memory is that she doesn't truly fall for Darcy until she recognizes that he's a man of wealth.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Pity the poor immigrant?: a difficult case in a T C Boyle short story

Slackers, loners, outsiders, and hard-luck drinkers - these are the people we encounter in T. Coraghessan Boyle's short fiction (in his many novels, he takes on a broader variety of characters and conditions), and the greatness of his short fiction is that he writes with sympathy and understanding about these unfortunates - never condescending, satirical, or ironic. His story in the current New Yorker, The Fugitive, is a great example, a story of a Mexican-immigrant day laborer (garden worker) most likely in Southern Cal (TCB's domain) who's suffering from a highly contagious strain of TB and disdains following the orders from the staff at the clinic that he must wear a mask at all times to protect the health of others. Boyle keeps us off balance - at times we feel deeply sorry for this poor guy and his difficult life and his desire just to be like others and not wear a mask that marks him out immediately, like a target on his face as he says to himself; at other times we realize how selfish and dangerous he is, especially when he strikes out at his medical workers toward the end of the story. A piece like this could infuse the anti-immigrant sentiment so prevalent today and already being stoked by megalomaniacs and bigots: Why is this guy allowed in the U.S., and receiving the benefits of free medical care, which he disdains? But the story also makes the immigrant not faceless (literally) but human - a suffering man, trying to survive, doing the work that others won't do, with hardly a chance to get ahead. He's not necessarily representative of all immigrant laborers of course, and TCB may draw some criticism for portraying an immigrant with such a flawed personality - but like all good fiction it ends not with a closing but an opening: what will happen to the man, and to us?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent NYer story and why writers should show don't tell but don't show off either

X-country flight and a lot of time to read a # of stories yesterday including catch-up on some old NYer issues and the story that impressed me the most was the long piece by Jonathan Safrzn Foer, Maybe it was the Distance, in the NYer summer fiction issue. He's a writer who for me has had ups and downs, who hasn't,  but more than the usual, so much so that at times it seems he's writing not to communicate, express, or entertain but to show off - how smart he is, how clever, how funny. I felt that on and off in his first novel but hoped, expected in fact, that he would relax and settle into a style and mature as a writer, and this story is evidence that he's really doing so in mid-career, working toward a break-out. The story tells of a lifelong friendship and rivalry of two male cousins, Jacob and Tamir, one a marginally successful, cautious, timid, self-conscious novelist (not JSF) living in suburban DC and the other a boisterous, bearish, enterprising, successful business guy living in Israel. The story takes place at a meeting at National Airport in DC (like the characters in this story, that's what I call it) - it gradually becomes clear why this meeting is happening, I won't give it away) - and involves a # of look-backs at the childhood behavior of the two men, now in mid-40s, and sketches of the other (male) characters in their lives, particularly their two sons, as different from each other as the fathers are, and Jacob's father, Irv, a wise-cracking set-in-ways elderly Jewish man. Much of the rivalry concerns issues of Judaism and in particular the loyalty, pride, and sometimes shame American Jews feel about Israel - though none of this is heavy-handed or didactic. All told - and I compare this w/ other stories I read last night including one in the NYer that was, as I noted about earlier JSF pieces a good less in show don't tell but don't show off either, another an example of why commissioner short stories almost always fail, another showing that when an author discards a draft of a story there's usually good reason - JSF's piece is a great portrait, with humor and drama, of a family in turmoil and two men going at each other in high style.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Donald Barthelme and the tone of his era

Donald Barthelme was a writer who truly set the tone for his era - 1970s through 89s I would say - w his short, funny ,mysterious fiction that seemed both absurdist and strangely contemporary. It was an era of irony and edginess, the films of Altman, dylan at his best, celebrity artists, a terrible and absurd war - and Barthelme fit right in somehow his story in 100 years of the best american short stories, The School,mid a pretty good representation of his work though not his most famous or recognizable piece (those would be the Indian uprising or Robert Kennedy saved from drowning): a teacher gives an affectless account of the elementary school where he teaches beginning w the trees the children planted that all died and moving steadily on to recount one failure and death after another - tropical fish, a puppy that the class adopted, unusual number of deaths among the parents, building to an accident in which two of the children died and without our being aware of quite how this comical story becomes increasingly macabre and ghastly.mimagine his reading this aloud - and what would our reaction be? Laughter at first but becoming less certain and perhaps embarrassed by our initial light-heartedness or building in intensity as the story becomes more absurdist in content while the tone remains slick and detached? I can't actually make sense of the ending, which seems off key to me , w the children encouraging the teacher to make love w the assistant teacher, which they begin to do - until a gerbil enters the room. This ending doesn't strike me as particularly funny and breaks the tone - as if The Metamorphosis ended w the entry into the narrative of a giant house fly.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Joyce Carol Oates story w a ridiculous conclusion

Joyce carol Oates is one of the most prolific writers in america so of course she has hits and misses so why would the editors pick her 1969 story By the River to represent her work in 100 years of th best american sho stories? The story starts off so well and seems at first to be a fair example of oates's sympathy for struggling working-class people - in particular in the small rural or agrarian towns not often represented in literary fiction: a 22-year-old woman retune to her hometown after the breakup of her marriage and the end of a brief affair w an older man.  She is waiting at the dreary bus station for her father to pick her up and take her back to her childhood home, a poorly constructed farm house set on unproductive land (interesting contrast w Updike and his childhood move to a rural setting). The story is largely her interior monologue and after father picks her up at the station his lament , at first taciturn but building into almost a screed of anger and resentment at his I laws and at all the other farmers whom he considers the "rich," - along w some ominous hints: he hasn't even told his wife that their daughter is coming home. So far so good and the he stops the car and the two of them walk down to the eponymous river - a nasty and mucky choked stream - there is nothing pleasant about the pastoral anywhere in Oates - and (spoiler) he tastes out a knif and stabs his daughter in the heart. Now I know jco is fascinated by violence and that anything can happen in life and in art but seriously stabbing his own daughter? For no reason other than many expected he's ashamed because of the failure of her marriage? W no preparation or even foreshadowing that he is homicidal? Truly a ridiculous end to a character sketch that jco had no idea how to use or develop.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A story representative of Raymond Carver's best work

Raymond carver deserves a place of honor in the anthology 100 years of the best american short stories as he was by far the most influential author of short fiction in the last third of the century w his austere, incisive prose, his clear narrative line, his interest in and understanding of workin-class american couples and families, and his complete lack of condescension toward his characters and readers - fiction without a touch of irony or sarcasm. He was often compared w Hemingway and rightly so in regard to their prose style and economic use of dialogue and description, but carver was a more domestic writer - he wrote more about couples and families - and the anthologiized story would you please be quiet, please? Is an excellent example: a seemingly happily married, a high-school English teacher, drinking a little too much,starts questions his wife about the details of a long-festering quarrel, which lead her to reluctantly tell of an infidelity. He leaves the house and goes on an odyssey an journey to hell - through drink, gambling, a mugging - but returns home shamed and bewildered and reconciled to trying to restore thei marriage. It's a powerful and incisive story in just the right form and length - carver never wrote a novel nor was there need for him to do so, and his stories, pace Robert Altman, don't translate well to other media.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A theory about Shakespeare's major tragedies and the course of life

I've mentioned a theory I have about Shakespeare's major tragedies and at encouragement of friend aw will post on this tho it's hard for me to believe that no one has thought of this or used it as a pricpncipal to organize a seminar. Shakespeare's major tragedies can be arranged so as to chart the course of a man's emotional life: first Romeo and Juliet about first love and adolescent passion, then hamlet about teenage angst and struggle for autonomy and recognition and identity, then othello about the tempestuous relationship between newlyweds unsure of much aside from their passion, then Macbeth about marriage at middle age and the struggle for success and recognition, then Anthony and cleopatra about late life second marriage and the trophy spouse, and finally King Lear about widowhood, property, posterity, and death.